U.S. will not be able to read high-tech foreign passports

The United States will not be prepared to read high-tech passports of foreign visitors this fall, even if Congress does not extend the deadline for certain foreign countries to have the imbedded biometric technology.

"We will not make that deadline," Elaine Dezenski, acting assistant secretary at the Homeland Security Department's border and transportation security directorate, told the House Judiciary Subcommittee On Immigration, Border Security and Claims during a hearing Thursday. Dezenski said the department would not have enough passport readers deployed to every port of entry by Oct. 26, 2005.

That date reflects a one-year extension approved by Congress last year requiring every country participating in the "visa waiver" program to have facial recognition technology imbedded into passports or other travel documents by this fall.

Many of the 27 countries in the program have said they would once again need another extension to meet the October deadline. Dezenski said 80 percent of travelers from visa waiver countries would not be in compliance. The European Union has asked Congress to extend the deadline until Aug. 28, 2006.

But House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., has said recently it is unlikely that Congress would support another extension, arguing several members of the European Union could have used a "less technically ambitious approach" to fulfill the biometric passport requirement.

Other lawmakers, both Republicans and Democrats, on the Judiciary panel argued Thursday for an extension.

Dezenski said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff would meet with Sensenbrenner next month to discuss the issue. Last year, the department asked for a two-year extension, but Congress only provided one extra year. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell said last year the Bush administration asked for two years out of prudence to help ensure that the secretary would not later have to ask for a second extension.

The visa waiver program, which includes close U.S. allies like Australia and the United Kingdom, allows foreign visitors to travel to the United States for tourism or business for 90 days or less without obtaining visas.

Supporters of an extension argue that visa-waiver countries contribute billions of dollars to the U.S. economy each year. Without an extension, U.S. consular offices overseas would have to begin issuing more than 5 million more visas, which would create backlogs and long lines at consular offices.